Project Nim Interview
Project Nim Interview
The documentary Project Nim tells the unique and unsettling story of a chimpanzee, stolen from his mother at birth, and raised with an increasing number of human families and adoptive parents over the years in a scientific experiment to see if it is possible to teach chimps to speak. Having been stationed at primate research centre, he and Bob Ingersoll, a student of primate studies, became life long friends, with a strong bond that seemed to overcome their differing species.

Here Bob Ingersoll talks to View’s Matthew Turner about what it was like sharing his life with Nim, and how he feels about the radical experiments of the 70s.
Can you explain your part in the Project Nim story?

Bob Ingersoll

Sure. I met Nim in 1977, when he came back to the Institute for Primate Studies, where I was a graduate student. I'd been working with a bunch of chimps there, including some of Nim's brothers. And so I saw Nim with Joyce and Bill and Herb. My job was to work with the chimps and take them on walks and, if you want to know the truth, I realised Nim was big and famous and I wanted to interact with him and see for myself whether or not he was as good a signer as I'd heard. Plus, I just liked chimps, and as my job was to hang out with chimps, it was like, 'Alright, a new chimp – Onan's brother, Ali's brother ...”, so that's how it started.
Science has changed a lot in the last 35 years. Now you can talk about emotional states of octopi...
There's a chimp called Onan?

Bob Ingersoll

Yeah, yeah. It's funny, huh? Actually, Bill Lemon named all of his chimps after Biblical names – he had Shadrack and Meshach and Sarah – oh no, was there a Sarah? But anyway, a lot of the chimps were named after Biblical names. Actually, you can see some pictures of Onan on my website. In the film, when you see those two chimps tickling and rolling and coming up the hill with the guy with the lacrosse stick, that's Onan.
[linebereak] So Onan's actually in several pieces of footage. He's just a bit bigger – his head was huge and his personality wasn't as easily accessible. He also wasn't as confident. Things that you wouldn't be able to say about animals 25 years ago, now we can use those terms like “shy”, because science has changed a lot in the last 35 years and now we can use terminology that was just not used, when it came to animals. Never. Now you can talk about emotional states of octopi.
How did you get involved in the film? At what stage were you aware of the project?

Bob Ingersoll

Well, Elizabeth Hess wrote the book about Nim and had approached me a number of years before that and – I didn't help her write the book, but I gave her access to all my material. And then the book came out and got reasonably good reviews for a book – because if it's not about a President or a person in the media or whatever then books just don't sell anymore. So when she let me know that there were people interested in optioning the book for films or TV.
[linebereak] Some people approached us and I wasn't happy with them and so, when [producer] Simon came along, he approached me in a different way, totally. He's a good guy and he was honest about everything, you know, straight up. And then I made a gentleman's agreement on the phone and he put me in touch with James. James is very charming and a really nice guy. And I'd seen his stuff, like Man On Wire and Wisconsin Death Trip, which is my favourite piece of his work. So I said, “I love your stuff but I can't make a deal without seeing and talking to you in person,” so he said, “I'll come to San Francisco.” He was there on a Friday, we hung out for the weekend and it just all came into place.
You said you knew Nim was big when you first met him but how aware were you of the rest of the story at that point?

Bob Ingersoll

Oh, I knew every single bit of it. I knew he was biting a bunch of people in New York, I knew he had 37 teachers. Because my professor, Roger Faltz was regularly interfacing with Herb and regularly telling us, “Nim's going to be coming back” or this is going on or that's going on. So we were invested in Nim, because, really, Bill Lemon owned him.
[linebereak] Chimps are “property” – I don't know what to say about that, but hopefully one of these days we're going to realise that animals should be treated with respect and dignity, and there needs to be some other way to approach living beings and not be under the guise of property rights. Unfortunately, in legal terms it's either human rights or property rights. There's no in-between and that's a sticking point for me, because I don't want to give animals human rights, I want to give them the rights they deserve as the individual species of what they are.
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Content updated: 20/04/2019 13:25

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